There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, and though most of it boils down to write – revise – revise again, somehow this instruction never gets old. Most writers I know own at least a half dozen books on writing, and I think it’s because we all wish there were rules we could follow, secrets we could unlock, that would make it easier.
And actually, there are. Or rather: ideas can resonate and inspire. It can be useful to hear how successful writers balance discipline and inspiration, self-doubt and confidence, craft and creativity. And it’s endlessly fascinating to hear how others work.
Several months ago The Guardian asked 29 well-known contemporary writers for ten rules on writing. Some are practical (Richard Ford: “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting”), some are no-nonsense (Neil Gaiman: “Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down”), and some are – as to be expected from writers – cranky (Jeanette Winterson: “Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect”) and sardonic (Colm Toibin: “If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane”).
Here’s my own highly subjective top ten list of the Guardian’s top tens:
1. Margaret Atwood: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”
2. Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’”
3. A.L. Kennedy: “Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.”
4. P.D. James: “Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.”
5. Andrew Motion: “Think with your senses as well as your brain.”
6. Esther Freud: “Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.”
7. Anne Enright: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”
8. Joyce Carol Oates: “Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.”
9. Geoff Dyer: “Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”
10. Hilary Mantel: “Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.”